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Forget 'Age of Ultron,' it's time to get hyped about 'Avengers' comics

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AVENGERS HICKMAN
Marvel

For the past three weeks, we have all been living in the same year that the next Avengers movie is supposed to come out—which means it is officially time to Get Hyped (and stay hyped for about four and a half more months). But what if you could get hyped about a really good Avengers story right now?

For the past two years, writer Jonathan Hickman—along with a rotating roster of artists including Jerome Opeña, Michael Deodato, and Stefano Casseli—has been constructing a superhero epic that’s perfectly suited for a 2015 audience. Like the most irresistibly bingeworthy shows, Hickman’s Avengers pulls you forward with a grim sense of foreboding, giving you just enough to know that its heroes are slowly speeding toward tragedy—while readers try and piece together the ways in which everything will fall apart.

With its current story arc, called “Time Runs Out,” that fall is creeping closer every month, which makes now the perfect time to catch up.

Before we go on, there’s something we should clear up, because comics are weird.

There are piles and piles of Avengers comics out there, and loads more coming out every week. The fact that the movie made a billion dollars only makes this worse—since the word Avengers” is now super popular, Marvel likes to put it on as many different series as popular, in the hopes that it will make them more appealing to the casual fan. Since 2012, we’ve had Avengers, New Avengers, Mighty Avengers, Avengers Arena, Avengers Undercover, Secret Avengers, Captain America and the Mighty Avengers, another Secret Avengers, Uncanny AvengersAvengers World, Avengers Assemble, and so forth. It’s excessive, and frustrating—most of these books are actually really good, but the fact that they’re all called Avengers makes it difficult to recommend titles to an uninitiated friend without some sort of seeing-eye dog there making sure they buy the right book.

It only makes things worse that most current comic book series carry names inherited from older ones. The best way to distinguish which Avengers comic you’re talking about is by knowing who made it. So, what we’re talking about here is Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers, from 2012 to the present. Cool? Let’s roll.

Here’s why, of all the Avengers comics out there, you should read this one:

You don’t need to know a thing about The Avengers. When Marvel decided to revamp its comics lineup in late 2012, it assigned writer Jonathan Hickman to usher in a brand-new era for its biggest team. Hickman has a reputation for meticulously planning his stories in truly unique ways. Just before he took on Avengers, he had wrapped up a three-year run on Fantastic Four that was equal parts intricate and grand, with a sweeping cosmic story about something very personal and central to the team’s existence—family. In Avengers (and also New Avengers—we’ll get to that in a moment), Hickman is telling a story about Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, giving them the very biggest of problems to solve. It starts with the six members you know from the movies, and grows to envelop almost every major hero in the Marvel Universe (sans most of the X-Men, although a few of them play pretty important roles). Like his run on Fantastic Four, Hickman has a three-year plan for his Avengers story, one that will finally conclude with the start of Secret Wars in May. Now is the perfect time to binge.

A more thoughtful Avengers. Hickman’s Avengers run is actually spread across two books: the main Avengers title, and its companion, New Avengers. You really need to read both to appreciate the full extent of what’s happening. While it’s easy to see Hickman’s ambition in a very literal sense, the writer is equally interested in tackling big, difficult themes. Both books begin as very distinct—the writer would describe Avengers as being “about life” as it chronicled the very public efforts of the Avengers to expand and handle a large-scale threat from another world. New Avengers, however is “about death,” since it would deal with a secret Illuminati-esque group of heroes that must decide whether entire worlds live or die “for the greater good.”

As time goes on, both books begin to converge, asking difficult questions about the toll having the powers of a god has on one’s soul, and how increasingly dire stakes make it easier to justify crossing lines that were there for a reason. (Note: After the first year of Hickman’s run—Avengers #1-24, New Avengers #1-12—there’s a third book introduced, Avengers World. If you have time, read it, if not, you’ll survive).

RoyaltyThree of the most important characters in this Avengers story are not marquee heroes (although two of them will be, should Marvel’s Phase Three movies come to fruition): Black Bolt, Namor, and The Black Panther. They’re far more interesting than heroes—they’re kings. Namor is the arrogant king of Atlantis (kind of like Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z). Black Bolt is the ruler of the Inhumans, in their flying fortress-city of Attilan. And The Black Panther (whose real name is T’Challa) is the former king of Wakanda, now ruler of the ruined City of the Dead, having ceded Wakanda’s throne to his sister Shuri.  These three men add a fascinating dimension to Avengers/New Avengers grand meditation on power, essentially making them each wild cards with their own distinct motivations. These goals do not always line up with those of the Avengers, and some of them—like the simmering rivalry between Namor and T’Challa—have immense consequences for the world.

It’s so much funWhile all this stuff may seem very dire, it’s not all gloom and doom. It really does have a little bit of everything—intrigue, comedy, revenge, drama, and crazy big fights. Every hero you know (and a few you don’t) makes an appearance, and it’s remarkable how substantial many of their contributions are given the enormity of the cast. That the run is full of moments where lesser-known but much beloved characters like Bobby da Costa (Sunspot of New Mutants fame) suddenly step out of the background to play a huge role just makes it really delightful to read.

It’s not perfect, thoughAs you can probably surmise from reading this, Avengers/New Avengers is extremely dude-heavy. It’s unfortunate, because there’s a bit of potential in the early going with the introduction of Isabel Kane, the newest incarnation of the hero Smasher, along with Captain Marvel, Spider-Woman, a female Captain Universe, and Black Widow. However, none of these women are given much to do, and some—like Smasher and Captain Universe—have completely dropped out of the big picture altogether (although Susan Richards, the Invisible Woman, has stepped in to play a very big role as of late). Part of this isn’t really Hickman’s fault. Most of Marvel’s interesting female characters are all X-Men (or chillin’ in space with The Winter Soldier like Daisy Johnson), and kind of difficult to justify using when you’re not really playing in that sandbox. But there are female characters in his roster, and it’s disappointing to see them so underused .

What’s more, the back half of Avengers/New Avengers’ first year gets incredibly bogged down in the interesting but ultimately underwhelming Infinity crossover. No one will blame you for skipping it and reading the Wikipedia article or something. Just know that once you make it through that stretch, things really take off.

So how do you read it? Listen, comic books are super expensive. We’re talking about a story that has unfolded over some 70-odd issues, and the collected editions will set you back about $15 each for about a dozen books—and the story ain’t done yet. That said, catching up as opposed to waiting is totally worth it. There’s something really special about watching how these stories unfold one comic at a time, and some of the biggest moments—like this week’s absolutely stunning Avengers #40—pack plot twists that are up there with the best Game of Thrones shockers.

So here’s the most feasible way: pony up $9.99 for a month of Marvel Unlimited, and just binge. Marvel usually adds comics to the service about six months after release, so when you get to the end, you’ll only be about ten issues behind on Avengers/New Avengers, and at that point you can pay for them the old fashioned way, either digitally or at your local comic book shop. You can also look up the collected editions by title on a site like Comixology and then check with your local library to see if they carry them in their graphic novel section to save some cash.

Finally, a note about where this is all heading. As mentioned earlier, this Avengers story looks like it’s going to conclude in a giant event called Secret Wars, which no one really knows a thing about. As you can probably guess from what was just said about Infinity a few paragraphs up, crossovers can be a messy thing, especially when they’re as big as this. Might it end disastrously? Sure.

But comics, like TV shows, are about the journey, not the destination. And it’s been a hell of a ride.